A few thoughts on indeterminacy and serial music

Posted on December 4, 2012


Just imagine that you walk a busy road or an open market in the city, with all the people and different sounds of the street buzzing around. Or maybe you are on a long journey by car and take a rest in a roadside restaurant. You could hear the traffic passing by, people talking indistinctly, the sound of glasses and coffee pots. Would you experience any feelings? Or you just live in a house for a time and your mind remembers the specific noises that surround you each day. Is it possible that an experience like this (or any other), with its random noises could be meaningful for you at some point? Is it possible that your thoughts would get carried away, the colour of your emotions change and you find yourself in a different state of mind? Just by random noises.

John Cage – Imaginary Landscape No. 2 played by Helios Quartet
Could something like this be a valid part of a musical performance? If somebody produced the right circumstances for sounds to emerge in their abstract form, giving a chance to a change in our state of mind, could that person be called an artist? Or music always has to be produced by well defined pitches and similarly well defined (traditional or serial) pitch relationships, harmonic rules, rhythms and musical instruments?

John Cage – First construction on metal. Humboldt State University Percussion Ensemble. Composed in 1939. Performed in JVD in Arcata, CA December 2009. Directed by Eugene Novotney

I suppose my answer would be that I would allow random sounds change the way I experience myself and my environment. To be honest, it happens anyway, whether I “allow” it or not. I know people who can hardly appreciate the best masterpieces of the traditional musical heritage, but are very sensitive to sounds in their surroundings. Also, there is a scientific argument: in the brain / nervous system one can hardly find any straight lines or well delimited, neat structures with sharp edges, everything is distributed among billions of cells of various and fantastic shapes. Although we manage to work out some structures that guide our logic, random thoughts and sensations continuously emerge, especially when we are relaxed, daydreaming or, of course dreaming. We are not machines. We feel proud about the structures, rules and the order we create around us, it gives us a sense of control and mastery, but what would we be without intuitive thinking, random flashes of our minds and free imagination? So, bringing random sounds together in an intuitive, exploratory fashion would very well qualify as music in my opinion.

John Cage – She’s asleep

Consequently, a piece of music (or any form of art) may act either on our intuitive mind or on our affinity for reliable structures, although the best pieces of music (art) would have an impact on both. Indeterminacy in music – as it appears in the creations of so many composers of different orientation, such as John Cage, Charles Ives, Terry Riley, György Ligeti, Henry Cowell, as well as various masters of improvisation – builds on the intuitive side of our mind. It is like walking in a landscape curiously exploring whatever comes in our way. I think aleatory music can indeed produce a strong emotional impact, just like exploring new, unknown territories.

John Cage “In A Landscape” (1948) Piano solo performed by Stephen Drury

Indeed, the emotional impact can be strong, even too strong some times. A complete lack of structure would fill most of us with anxiety, just like walking in a forest with no paths whatsoever. Perhaps this is why Schoenberg was so reassured when he devised his revolutionary twelve tone system, after several years of composing in a freely atonal way.

In serial music, different composers were employing variable levels of structural fidelity to the rules of serialist composition. Examples of high structural homogeneity would include compositions of Matthias Hauer, who created his compositions, which he called Twelve-Tone Games, on strictly specified rules of his own dodecaphonic system. His piano pieces are strictly “mathematical” compositions, which would sometimes appear to me rather cold and inexpressive. Here the rules governing the music appear to be rather transparent with some attentive listening.

Josef Matthias Hauer (1883-1959): Atonale Musik op.20, Klavierstücke 1922. Played by Steffen Schleiermacher.

Other serial compositions, however, are built on compositional methods that are less penetrable to understanding. Most of this music sounds to me more stimulating and emotionally charged. One example would be Polyphonie X by Pierre Boulez, which is full of surprises and variable degrees of tension, thanks to the overlapping and intersecting layers of serial sound sequences. With careful listening one can notice sonic intervals as points of reference, but the whole structure of the piece doesn’t reveal itself. Still, it carries the listener through an exciting multitude of changing experiences.

Pierre Boulez: “Polyphonie X” (1951),SWF Symphony Orchestra, Hans Rosboud, director

On the other extreme – high degree indeterminacy – there are compositions with written indications and graphical scores that can be read in different ways and multiple directions, the same symbols meaning different parameters of music in different performances. An example would be Earle Brown’s composition December 1952, where the score consists of rectangles of different thickness and lengths that can be read as duration, intensity or pitch by the performing musician.

Earle Brown December 1952

Both serial and chance music are abstract musical expressions, far from traditional tonality and, as long as they use the twelve tones characteristic to Western music, the musical notes have equal weight, i.e. they do not revolve around any tonal centre. As most of us were raised in environments filled with all sorts of music based on traditional tonality, both serial and chance music may initially sound strange and artificial. Often the dilemma between free chance and clear structure led to heated debates between musicians, but the most notable modern composers experimented with both serial and aleatory music, such as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez and Iannis Xenakis, just to mention a few.

Posted in: Part 2